August 1, 2020


Conservatism Is Rooted In Natural Rights: If you want to understand it, look no further than the Declaration of Independence (JAMES PIERESON, 8/01/20, American Conservative)

Beginning in the 1970s, perhaps because of the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence and, a dozen years later, of the U.S. Constitution, or because of the election of Ronald Reagan, conservatives began to focus more intently upon the nation's founding institutions, especially the Declaration with its ringing endorsement of natural rights. Historians and biographers such as Gordon Wood, Joseph Ellis, Richard Brookhiser, and others highlighted the distinctly American contribution to political theory in the Declaration, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and other writings emanating from the founding generation. Due in part to the growing relativism of the American Left, conservatives endorsed the absolute language of the Declaration, which left no doubt as to the truths upon which the nation was founded. Here was something of a change: conservatives began to embrace the natural rights philosophy of John Locke, an outlook that Kirk criticized as abstract, individualistic, and potentially radical. The new outlook represented a distinctly American version of conservatism, one that resonates well with the American public--and for that reason has contributed to the rise of conservatism as a popular movement. 

There is also the issue of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Russell Kirk rarely mentioned Lincoln in The Conservative Mind, and did not parse the Lincoln-Douglas debates or Lincoln's wartime speeches, where Lincoln set up the struggle over slavery in terms of the natural rights delineated in the Declaration of Independence. The emergence of Lincoln as a conservative hero late in the 20th and early in the 21st centuries could not have been predicted based upon Kirk's book or the conservative mood of the 1950s and 1960s. This owes something to Harry Jaffa's pathbreaking book, The Crisis of the House Divided (1959), in which he showed that it was Lincoln and not his adversaries who were faithful to the Declaration and the Constitution--and to his many students who continue to raise the flag of Lincoln.

With the dust now settled, we can see in all this the emergence of a more distinctively American version of conservatism, based upon the Founding Fathers, the nation's founding documents, the writings and speeches of Abraham Lincoln--and, of course, the natural rights philosophy limiting government to a few important duties. This was an important corrective to (but not a repudiation of) the conservative writings of the early 1950s. It was also essential to the rise of conservatism as a popular political movement: before it could succeed politically, the movement had to embrace more forcefully the nation's founding philosophy of natural rights.

It was inevitable that the incorporation of the universalism of the Founding into conservatism would fracture the broader right. The only surprise was the percentage of white men who still refuse to adhere to the Founding ideals if it means sharing them with people of color and women.

Posted by at August 1, 2020 6:45 AM